On Friday 17th of February, MAR had the opportunity to visit the French multi-mission frigate Alsace (D656) whilst on a port call at the Grand Harbour. We would first like to thank the Marine Nationale for having us onboard and special thanks goes to Chief of Department Lt Julien and helicopter pilot Lt Théo for giving us a very well guided tour of the ship whilst also patiently answering all our questions and queries.

The frigate Alsace (D656) is a multi-mission Aquitaine-class frigate of the French Navy. The ship was commissioned on April 16th, 2021, and is the first of the class known as FREMM DA (Frégate Européenne Multimissions de Défense Aérienne). FREMM stands for “European multi-purpose frigate” which is a Franco-Italian family of multi-purpose frigates designed by Naval Group and Fincantieri.

The ship is named after the French region of Alsace, which has a long history of maritime trade and commerce. It is the first French Navy ship to bear this name. The Alsace is 142 meters long, has a displacement of 6,000 tons, and is capable of reaching speeds of up to 27 knots. The ship can sail up to 45 days in a row which equates to around 7000 miles limited to which propulsion system is used. (Mentioned in detail further on in the article).

The Alsace is designed to be a versatile platform capable of carrying out a range of missions, including anti-submarine warfare, anti-air warfare, and anti-surface warfare. It is also designed to provide support for special forces operations and to carry out maritime security patrols. The high degree of automation allows the ship to be manned by only 120 people which can be complemented with additional Naval Air Force and Special Forces crew members.

Our tour began on the flight deck of the Alsace, the ship can carry a helicopter and has a hangar and flight deck for this purpose. The flight deck is 26.5m by 18.5m whilst the hangar is 18m by 12.5m. In fact, onboard was an NH-90NFH Caiman serial ’26’ from 31 Flotilla based at Toulon, the squadron responsible for operations in the Mediterranean Region. The French Navy operates 27 of the type, divided between the 31 Flotilla mentioned above and 33 Flotilla based at Lanvéoc responsible for the Atlantic shore. 14 of these versions have a rear ramp, useful for transporting bulky cargo, for example an M88 jet engine for the Dassault Rafale fighter jet. Logically, this is the preferred configuration when embarking on the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier.

When deployed on board the Aquitaine-class frigates, the NH-90 Caiman helicopter can perform a range of roles including anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, search and rescue, maritime surveillance, and special operations including counter terrorism and anti-piracy. Thanks to its sonar systems and torpedoes, the Caiman is able to detect and attack submarines whilst also searching for and locating underwater objects, such as mines. The Caiman is therefore a very useful asset to have onboard in order to complement the anti-submarine warfare roles of the ship.

As we made our way to the front of the ship, we came across a Zodiac Hurricane RIB craft. The ship is equipped with two RIBs on each side, which are quickly deployable in 10 minutes thanks to the crane they are lowered with. They are used either for boarding ships performing illicit activities or for recovering personnel in man overboard situations.

All the crew, from the seamen up to the Captain, go through the galley to have lunch and dinner who then proceed to their own mess. Every day, around 360 meals are served to the crew thanks to a team of only 5 people: a cook, his deputy and three assistants. A caterer is responsible for buying food for the deployment and at each port call he is responsible for buying fresh food. The ship is also equipped with a water-purification process turning sea water into drinking water and it’s very own bakery, because who doesn’t love a freshly baked French baguette!

We proceeded up to the bridge where whilst at sea, four people are on watch. An officer of the watch (OOW) is wholly responsible for the nautical navigation of the ship. His assistant, the quartermaster of the deck, plots the paths on the map whilst updating the diary sheet and navigation paper. A helmsman pilots the ship according to the OOW’s orders and a lookout monitors the surface situation using binoculars. On the right hand side (looking forward), is a desk allowing to command the heading and speed if the primary system of navigation is inoperable. Behind it, is a multi-function console to manage the artillery.

Looking out on the front deck, is the 76 mm main naval gun as well as the SYLVER A43 and A70 Vertical Launching Systems which launch the Aster 15 and 30 surface-to-air missiles respectively (16 Cells each). The ship is armed with various other weapons systems, including 8x Exocet MM40 Block 3 anti-ship missiles and 2 x 20 mm Narwhal remote weapon systems.

You can notice from the deck that the ship’s shape is rather flat and full of straight edges for the purpose of keeping a low radar signature. The ship also has lateral exhausts which blow the hot exhaust downwards to keep a low IR signature. The frigate is also equipped with several sensors and communications systems, including a Thales Herakles Multi-Function Radar (MFR), a hull-mounted sonar, and a tactical data link system.

On both sides are NGDS decoy launchers and SLAT anti-torpedo systems. The NGDS (Next Generation Decoy System) decoy launcher is a defensive countermeasure system designed to protect ships from incoming anti-ship missiles. On the other hand, the Surface-Launched Advanced Torpedo Defence (SLAT) system is an anti-torpedo defence system designed to protect surface ships from incoming torpedoes. The SLAT system works by launching a countermeasure torpedo from the ship’s deck to intercept an incoming torpedo by mimicking the acoustic and magnetic signatures of the ship, making it difficult for the incoming torpedo to distinguish between the ship and the countermeasure.

We then made our way to the most interesting part of the ship, its core – the Combat Information Centre (CIC). At sea, 8 operators are on duty regrouped into 4 modules:

  • Anti-submarine warfare (1 sonar operator)
  • Artillery (1)
  • Tactical situation (EW, surface and air)
  • Command (PWO, TPD, CWO)

The CIC gathers all the information from all the relevant sensors and external sources which is then analysed in order to draw out the current overall tactical situation of the ship in a rapid, clear and precise way. Thanks to the Multi-Function Radar, each potential threat is located, identified and categorised in order to ensure if it is a friendly or foe. In comparison with older French Navy ships, 3 additional consoles have been added and the global arrangement inside the CIC includes 19 stations among whom is the commander.

Followed by the CIC was the Ship Control Centre. At berth or at sea, a person is always on watch monitoring any possible fire outbreaks, water leaks or hazardous atmospheric situations. He/she is responsible to initiate the first actions to counter such events. The whole crew conduct several exercises during deployments to be prepared to tackle such scenarios if they were ever to occur.

At the Machine Control Room, only two persons are required to monitor a fully automatic propulsion system. The ship has 3 propulsion modes:

  • Electrical propulsion: 2 electrical engines positioned on the propeller shaft, which is a far more economical means of navigation, reaching up to speeds of 17 knots and having a very silent sound profile which is well suited for anti-submarine warfare. The engines are supplied by 4 diesel-fuelled generating sets which also supply power to all appliances on the ship.
  • Mechanical propulsion: Gas turbine method to reach its max speed of 27 knots in favourable sea conditions. At full speed, it consumes up to 7.5 Cubic Metres of gasoil an hour.
  • Rescue/Back-up propulsion: A retractable POD with adjustable blades protrudes from underneath the ship which can propel the ship up to 6 knots in any direction.

The tour came to an end at the rear below the helicopter flight deck where the ship is moored when it is berthed. A very interesting piece of equipment found here is the CAPTAS-4 (Combined Active and Passive Towed Array Sonar 4) which is a variable-depth towed sonar system used for detecting and tracking submarines, commanded from the CIC.

The CAPTAS-4 system consists of a towed array sonar, a winch system, and an operator console. The towed array sonar is a long, thin cable with hydrophones attached at regular intervals that is towed behind the ship at variable depths. It can detect and track submarines at ranges of up to tens of kilometres. The CAPTAS-4 system uses both active and passive sonar to detect submarines. The active sonar emits a sound pulse that bounces off the submarine and returns to the hydrophones, allowing the system to determine the range and bearing of the submarine. The passive sonar listens for sounds emitted by the submarine, such as the noise of its engines, and uses these to locate and track the submarine.

Before we left the ship, we got to see the Caiman helicopter towed out of the hangar and repositioned using a MANTIS-RAM Aircraft Tug. The maintenance crew also kindly obliged to leave the Caiman at a favourable angle to photograph in better lighting conditions before being towed into the corner of the flight deck to make room for a cocktail event the crew had that evening.